Friday, 22 September 2023

We are shifting our daily news to Gutzy.Asia Support us there!

Local vs foreign workers: Unravelling the debate

By not offering adequate protection to foreign workers, the government has created the conditions that make it advantageous and lucrative to hire foreigners over locals.

Jolovan Wham

Economic fears and resentment towards foreign workers usually rest along two main premises: they take away jobs that locals can fill, and they lower the wages of local workers.

Whilst it is understandable that foreign workers are found in jobs such as those in the construction sector because it is too dirty, difficult and dangerous for locals to do, what seems to have attracted the most vocal critics is the presence of foreigners in the service sector as these jobs can easily be taken up by the local poor.

Opposition political parties have also jumped into the debate, questioning the government’s pro-immigration policies, and criticising it, fairly enough, for not protecting the interest of local low wage workers.

The Singapore Democratic Party’s May Day message this year accused the government of letting an ‘influx of cheap foreign labour’ reduce local workers to doing ‘contract and casual jobs.’ Similarly, The Worker’s Party called on the government to put Singaporeans first, lest the societal standing of Singaporean workers is eroded by the presence of foreign workers.

Public endorsement of the exploitation of foreign workers

There is no doubt that our government is unabashed about its liberal recruitment policies for foreign workers. In fact, it has been trumped as a model of economic development for Singapore. Take this excerpt from PM Lee’s May Day speech as an example:

First, foreign workers are hardworking and willing to work long hours. By hiring them, coffee shops can open late, or even 24 hours, round the clock.

Second and more importantly, with the help of foreign workers, airport, seaport, factories, offices, hotels, restaurants and retail outlets can offer better service and business hours: 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, they can run their operations, service their customers, and so strengthen Singapore’s overall competitiveness.

Third, many SMEs do not make good profits, especially the neighbourhood shops. If they can hire some foreign workers in addition to the locals, they can reduce their business costs; otherwise, they may have to go out of business. Their Singaporean employees will then lose their jobs.

What is disturbing, though not surprising about PM’s speech is its public endorsement of the exploitation of foreign workers. Our businesses and ports can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year on foreigners because we have created an industrial and work culture that disciplines them into accepting conditions that local workers would not usually agree to. We have allowed businesses to cut corners by squeezing foreign workers dry.

Our restrictive work permit system, which ties foreign workers to a single employer, makes it difficult for them to bargain for better working conditions and higher wages. Many fear losing their jobs if they dare to ask for more. Returning to their countries of origin remains a frightening option as many would have taken out loans of up to $9000 just for a chance to work in Singapore. These workers slog long hours not only to support their families but to re-pay their debt.

In the 3 years that I have worked with HOME as a social worker, almost all of the foreign workers who approached us for assistance did not have written contracts with their employers. Of those with contracts, they are written by employers with the sole purpose of protecting their own interests, rather than creating an equitable relationship between themselves and their workers. Our unions also do little to demand better working conditions for them.

Compromising rights in the name of ‘economic development’

Products and services can be produced cheaply when business costs such as wages, taxes, and the cost of complying with regulations are kept low. In Singapore, it seems we are willing to compromise the rights of individuals in the name of ‘economic development’. Somehow, we believe that by granting rights to workers, the societal gains we have made, and the economic prosperity that we have enjoyed all these years will be threatened.

One example that is often cited is how legislating a minimum wage for workers will affect the competitiveness of Singapore’s economy. It will drive potential foreign investors away and make the cost of doing business here too high. This argument rests upon the assumption that Singaporean workers compete with workers of other countries on the basis of how ‘cheap’ our workers are. In a country that has a relatively educated work force and a government that exhorts its population to ‘life long learning’, the skills and knowledge of our workers should be the competitive factor, rather than how costly it is to hire them.

When workers are poor and lack legal protection, they are often willing to work longer hours for lower wages. Hence, the reason employers are willing to hire foreign workers in favour of local workers is because working conditions of all low wage workers in general are poor to start with, and not because we are allowing too many of them in.

Employer and employee – a power imbalance

By not offering adequate protection to foreign workers, the government has created the conditions that make it advantageous and lucrative to hire foreigners over locals. Hence, blaming foreigners for taking away local jobs and depressing local worker’s wages is not an adequate analysis of the problem. Capping limits on the numbers of foreign workers entering the country will not be a long term solution. Rather, we should be working on improving the lot of all workers in Singapore. If hiring foreign workers does not become a cheaper alternative, we need not be so concerned that foreign workers are stealing jobs from local workers.

The Employment Act, which was enacted in Singapore’s post independence years is limited in its protection of worker’s rights. The amount of medical benefits, annual leave, rest days, and provisions of work hours and salary payments that the Act provides for leaves much to be desired. Our government prefers employees to negotiate working conditions with their employers, rather than guaranteeing better protection through legislative action. However, by adhering so adamantly to this ‘free market’ model, we conveniently ignore the power imbalance that exists between both parties. As a result, workers – both local and foreign – are worse off because of it.


About the author:

Jolovan is a social worker with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).


TOC thanks Jolovan for contributing this article to our Human Rights Focus Week.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Latest posts

Election surprises and certainties: Dissecting Tharman’s presidential win

In the 2023 Presidential Election, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam secured a stunning 70.4% landslide victory, surprising many, including himself. Despite expectations that TKL would win the opposition votes, voters from both camps showed a preference for Tharman's charisma and perceived competency. As Singapore reflects on the outcome, questions arise about the election's fairness and the real implications of Tharman's dominant win.

Volunteer as a Polling and Counting Agent for Singapore’s 2023 Presidential Election

For the upcoming Singapore Presidential Election on 1st September, members of the civil society have spearheaded an initiative to strengthen our democratic fabric. We invite committed individuals to join us as Polling and Counting Agents, standing together for a transparent, fair, and just election. This vote counting exercise, organized by members of civil society, is not specifically in support of Mr Tan Kin Lian, a candidate in the upcoming Presidential Election. It's an exercise in active citizenry. Nonetheless, Mr Tan endorses this initiative, which hinges on his candidacy, championing transparency, and has given permission for the results to be shared publicly.

Reflections from the Centenary: The Legacy of LKY and Singapore’s Future

Gilbert Goh reflects on the LKY centenary event: an inspiring showcase of a leader's global legacy juxtaposed against current challenges, urging Singapore to continue its path of progress.

Lim Tean advocates for Tan Kin Lian: A visionary leader for Singapore’s Presidency

In his speech at Mr Tan Kin Lian's launch of his presidential bid, Mr Lim Tean passionately championed the need for a truly Independent President. Highlighting Mr Tan Kin Lian's unique credentials and genuine concern for the wellbeing of Singaporeans, the Peoples Voice leader emphasized the pressing challenges of rising living costs and job insecurities faced by the public. Mr Lim depicted Mr Tan Kin Lian as a beacon of hope for the nation, advocating for a leader who genuinely understands and represents the people’s aspirations.

Tan Jee Say endorses Tan Kin Lian for President: A courageous, genuine, and humble...

In advocating for a truly representative leader, Tan Jee Say underscored Tan Kin Lian's humility, courage, and genuine dedication. Highlighting the pressing need for restored public trust and effective independence, Tan Jee Say emphasized that Tan Kin Lian, as the 'People's President', would bring back hope to Singaporeans and champion true democracy

Tan Kin Lian’s pledge: Rekindling unity and charting a vigorous future for Singapore

In the press conference to announce his bid for the Singapore presidency, Tan Kin Lian emphasizes safeguarding Singapore's reserves and strengthening public service integrity. Drawing on his 30-year leadership at NTUC Income, he envisions a future with affordable living, accessible housing, and job stability, pledging collaboration with the government for a united nation.

Strengthening Singapore’s political foundations: A call to action by Leong Mun Wai on Singapore’s...

Leong Mun Wai urges Singaporeans to strengthen political checks and balances, emphasizing, 'The best is yet to be for Singapore if we dare to make the right decision in upcoming elections.

Trending posts